Oct 2, 2019

Axios Navigate

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Smart Brevity count: 1,427 words, 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Look up! Your package has arrived

The UPS Flight Forward unit is the first to win FAA approval for drone deliveries. Photo: Courtesy of UPS

UPS is the first company in the nation to receive FAA approval to operate a commercial drone fleet.

Why it matters: It's a big step forward in the effort to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the country's existing airspace, and will allow UPS to scale drone package delivery across the country.

The big picture: Unmanned aerial vehicles have the potential to transform our daily lives, but not until regulators can be sure they won't fall from the sky or crash into other aircraft.

  • The Trump administration has taken steps to try to speed up the rollout of drone technology, including a series of pilot projects to demonstrate how they could be operated safely.
  • UPS' approval comes after the company had already made 1,100 medical sample deliveries at a Raleigh, N.C., hospital under one such pilot program.

Details: The certification deems UPS' drones safe for flight, but individual flight paths and use cases must be approved.

  • Importantly, the drones can fly beyond a pilot's visual line of sight, which hasn't been allowed until now.
  • It also lets UPS drones fly at night and carry cargo that weighs more than 55 pounds.
  • UPS said it will start by setting up a fleet of unmanned aircraft to deliver health supplies within medical campuses and eventually expand to deliver consumer packages in a few years.
  • "It just gives us a lot of capabilities," CEO David Abney told the Wall Street Journal. "We're going to move ahead quickly and expand rapidly," he said. "It's not going to be a small operation."
  • Within months, Abney said UPS could be using drones in 100 or more hospital complexes.
  • The business case for drones is compelling, UPS tells Axios, because it replaces the need to contract with more costly same-day couriers.
  • And customers like hospitals see value in fast drone delivery of lab specimens, for example, so they're willing to pay more for the service, UPS says.

Yes, but: Significant regulatory hurdles remain for UPS and other companies, including Amazon and Uber, that hope to win approval for their own drone fleets.

  • Drones may not fly over urban areas under current FAA rules.
  • FAA needs to define standards that would let authorities remotely identify drones.

The bottom line: Almost 6 years ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' pronouncement that drones would deliver packages to your door seemed like a silly pipe dream. Now, it appears to be taking off.

Go deeper: Sky-high hopes for drones tethered to safety concerns

2. GM strike has implications for 2020

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

United Auto Workers bargainers rejected GM's latest contract offer Tuesday, which means there's no end in sight to the 17-day labor strike.

Why it matters: The longer the work stoppage lasts, the worse Michigan's fragile economy becomes — with huge potential consequences for the 2020 presidential race.

The big picture: About half the 46,000 striking auto workers are in Michigan, which voted twice for Obama then narrowly flipped to Trump in 2016, and will be a key battleground state in next year's election.

  • "If the strikes goes on, the economic ripples will threaten Trump's presidency," says Anderson Economic Group CEO Patrick Anderson, who has been studying the effect of local pocketbook issues on national elections since 2004.

Where it stands: The economic toll is spreading beyond Michigan as workers go without paychecks and GM loses an estimated $25 million a day.

  • The strike is the first at GM since 2007, and the longest since 1998.

The 2020 connection: Pocketbook issues — like growth in income, inflation and unemployment — have a well-established effect on how Americans vote.

  • While the U.S. economy remains fairly strong, Michigan has the highest risk of recession in the nation, according to Lending Tree.

What to watch: Trump promised Michigan in 2016 that he'd bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., a promise largely unfulfilled. Faced with industry disruption and a looming cyclical downturn, it's not clear he can do anything to stop any of it.

My thought bubble: Voters may put aside their economic worries if the election becomes a referendum on impeachment; 33% of UAW workers voted for Trump in 2016.

Go deeper: Read the full story.

3. Tesla's mixed messages confuse the public

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Social media posts have been popping up in recent days of Tesla owners trying out their car's new "Smart Summon" feature.

Why it matters: As The Verge and others reported, Smart Summon "is already causing chaos in parking lots across America," suggesting the technology isn't ready or people are misusing it.

Details: Smart Summon was released last week as part of Tesla's V10 software update on its Model 3, S and X electric cars.

  • It's another incremental step toward self-driving cars.

How it works: the remote control-like function allows owners to use their smart phone to direct their vehicle to back out of a parking space and navigate up to 200 feet to pick them up.

  • In the announcement, Tesla said the feature could be used as long as the car is within the driver's line of sight.
  • "It's the perfect feature to use if you have an overflowing shopping cart, are dealing with a fussy child, or simply don't want to walk to your car through the rain."

Yes, but: in the V10 release notes, Tesla emphasized that the technology is only intended for use in private parking lots and driveways.

  • "You are still responsible for your car and must monitor it and its surroundings at all times and be within your line of sight because it may not detect all obstacles. Be especially careful around quick moving people, bicycles and cars."

My thought bubble: Tesla is beta-testing features on customers and its statements seem to be encouraging them to use Smart Summon in ways it wasn't intended. Meanwhile, its actions are shaping the public's perception of self-driving cars.

4. Driving the conversation

Deal: Tesla acquires computer vision startup DeepScale in push toward robotaxis (Kirsten Korosec—Tech Crunch)

  • Why it matters: DeepScale's technology uses low-power, low-cost sensors and processors to improve perception for driver assistance and autonomous systems. The acquisition will help Tesla toward its goal of deploying "full self-driving" technology in its vehicles by 2020, and beef up its Autopilot engineering team.

Post-hype: Waymo valuation slashed on autonomous vehicle tech delays (Gerrit de Vynck—Bloomberg)

  • Details: Morgan Stanley lowered its valuation of Waymo by 40%, to $105 billion, saying it underestimated how long human safety drivers would be needed and overestimated how quickly autonomous ride-sharing services would be widely available.

Lobbying push: Industry spends big to sell safety of driverless cars (Alex Gangitano—The Hill)

  • GM and Uber are among the the self-driving car companies boosting their lobbying presence to convince policymakers in Washington the vehicles are safe for the road.
5. 1 more drone thing

The roofing octocopter, equipped with a nail gun, is parked near the mock roof. Photo: Matthew Romano, Michigan Robotics, University of Michigan.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a drone that can fix your roof.

Why it matters: Drones are for more than just delivering packages — or spying on your neighbor. They can also be used to perform dangerous jobs that would put humans at risk, like inspecting bridges or — perhaps some day — repairing roofs.

Details: To demonstrate their concept, the university engineering team attached an off-the-shelf nail gun to an octocopter and set up a system of cameras and markers on a mock rooftop so the drone would know exactly where it is in the environment and where the nails should go.

  • They programmed a virtual switch to pull the trigger on the nail gun when in the correct position.

Yes, but: The battery-operated drone could only operate for 10 minutes at a time (which would be grounds for firing at most construction companies).

  • One solution is to add a tether carrying power and air cables so it could stay aloft indefinitely and use a more powerful pneumatic nail gun.

The bottom line: The demo was cool, but the drone was slower than a human roofer.

  • "A novice roofer — who's never climbed on a roof, who's never used a nail gun— they start out slow. That learning process, the evolution from them being a complete novice to being successful, is something that we'll need to see in this system as well," Ella Atkins, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored the paper, said in a press release.